Our human anatomy is incredibly complex — with the brain being one of the most intricate organs to understand. There’s a lot that we don’t know, but when you examine the brain under the lens of evolution, it becomes slightly easier to understand.
Evolutionists state that we have three brains:
- The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three, which regulate vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, and temperature.
- The limbic brain, responsible for human emotions and motivation such as fear.
- The neocortex, which plays a dominant role in language, abstract thought, consciousness, creativity, planning, and logic.
These brains operate in a symbiotic manner; they influence each other and work collaboratively to accomplish larger goals.
🧠 What the heck is the monkey mind?
According to Buddhist principles, the ‘monkey mind’ refers to being unsettled, restless, or anxious, mapping these feelings to your reptilian and limbic brain.
As I mentioned, these manage emotions, motivation, and autonomous functions like breathing. Practically, this means: primal urges, desires, impulses… You get the point.
It’s said that our neocortex, being the logical counterpart, is responsible for governing these parts of our brain (our monkey mind), by disciplining our most primitive desires.
In layman’s terms: the monkey mind is all the negative chatter, anxious thoughts, and self-doubt that we inevitably hear.
We use logic to reason with this mind, but when we’re tired and fatigued, it becomes harder to do so.
👉 Why is the monkey mind important?
When we’re not operating at our best — perhaps we’re exhausted, grumpy, or sad — our monkey mind overpowers our logical voice.
- An overly active brain can prevent our ability focus and do deep work; to-do lists can seem impossible to conquer
- Inability to be present causes us to be too future-oriented (anxious) or past-oriented (depressed)
- Negative cognitions such as shame, inadequacy, and guilt can kick in — wrecking havoc on self-esteem and confidence (I’d encourage folks to check out this concept of EMDR Cognitions… very interesting!)
- Imaginary or perceived fears can cause analysis paralysis and prevent action
I’m sure you’ve felt this before. Often, these thoughts are not your reality — they’re just your overactive monkey mind.
By addressing and understanding this concept, we can curb the negative effects to be happier, more present, and have a clearer mind.
💆♂️ Calm your monkey mind
Here are 6 techniques I use to manage negative brain chatter.
- Practice self-awareness. The first step is to realize when the monkey mind kicks in, and monitor how you feel. There’s a concept used in psychotherapy called the window of tolerance; the smaller it is, the more easily you’re irritated (and bothered by your monkey mind), and the larger — the more resilient you are. Depending on different circumstances: stress, energy levels, external factors, the window will widen or narrow.
- Detach yourself from negative thoughts. Studies show that self-talk and language has a huge impact on our mood and self-esteem. Make a simple change to your phrasing to detach yourself from negative feelings. Instead of “I’m annoyed”, try “I feel annoyed”; Instead of “I’m sad”, try “I feel sad”; Instead of “I’m angry”, try “I feel angry”.
- Write. Writing puts any thoughts into a two-dimensional prison. It clears your head, and a notebook (laptops work too, but paper is better) serves as a physical medium to capture your brain chatter. Tim Ferriss uses the morning pages technique and a lot of other successful folks write the first thing in the morning. Personally, I allot an hour on Sundays to journal.
- Meditate. There’s a reason meditation is blowing up and that everyone is doing it — it’s because it works. Our brains have natural knee-jerk reactions in the form of a stimulus and response. For example, if a driver cuts me off on a turn while I’m biking, my default is to get angry. The practice of meditation trains your brain to put space between a stimulus and response, and in the example above, instead of immediately getting angry, I’d remain stoic and ask myself “Why am I feeling angry?”.
- Find flow. After all, flow is happiness. This may come in the form of doing exercise, creating art, completing puzzles, and so forth. Focus in an activity that challenges your mental and physical self to be in this state.
- Go for a walk. Go for a 20 minute walk. No phone, no music, no distractions.
If this seems overly simplistic, it’s because it is.
Sometimes, complex problems need simple solutions. And in this case, it’s best to stick to the basics.